Why Is Nationwide Funding A Campaign Against The Teaching Of Basic Numeracy?

August 15, 2012

I’ve heard it observed that any group with the word “truth” in the title is rarely interested in the truth. It’s not too hard to find examples, say, “9/11 Truth Movement” or “Holocaust Truth”. A similar phenomena occurs in education where organisations are often named after the very things they oppose in practice. So for instance, the “United Kingdom Literacy Association” campaigns against the most effective way of teaching reading. The “Campaign For Real Education” wants most kids to be in secondary moderns getting a second class education. The “National Association for the Teaching of English” opposes the explicit teaching of grammar. Even then it probably hasn’t got as bad as America where groups dedicated to worsening conditions for teachers have names like “StudentsFirst” or “The National Council on Teaching Quality”.

That said, even I was shocked when yesterday I learned of a relatively new organisation in the maths world, National Numeracy. The organisation responded yesterday to the plans for a new national curriculum which emphasises basic numeracy, by complaining about “early instrumental methods and rote processes”.   In the past  they have also attacked an emphasis on “procedural tools like times table [sic]” Their website  complains about “Boring ‘classroom maths’” which “for too many.. means merely ‘doing sums’ in a classroom” and indicates their approval for questioning “why 80% of ‘classroom maths’ concentrates on computation – which is the one area that those using maths in the real world ‘outsource’ to computers”.

But what shocked me wasn’t the fact that anybody could look at the innumerate children schools turn out every year and think there was too much emphasis on calculation, rote or procedure. Don’t get me wrong, at a time when two thirds of the maths GCSE exam is done with a calculator and the average child can’t tell you 7 times 8 without counting through their tables, I do think this is a ludicrous opinion, but it’s common enough among progressive types who think maths is about sitting around in groups and talking about problem-solving. I am fully aware of the people who the American maths professor, W. Stephen Wilson described in the following way:

There will always be people who think that calculators work just fine and there is no need to teach much arithmetic, thus making career decisions for 4th graders that the students should make for themselves in college. Downplaying the development of pencil and paper number sense might work for future shoppers, but doesn’t work for students headed for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

There will always be the anti-memorization crowd who think that learning the multiplication facts to the point of instant recall is bad for a student, perhaps believing that it means students can no longer understand them. Of course this permanently slows students down, plus it requires students to think about 3rd-grade mathematics when they are trying to solve a college-level problem.

There will always be the standard algorithm deniers, the first line of defense for those who are anti-standard algorithms being just deny they exist. Some seem to believe it is easier to teach “high-level critical thinking” than it is to teach the standard algorithms with understanding. The standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers are the only rich, powerful, beautiful theorems you can teach elementary school kids, and to deny kids these theorems is to leave kids unprepared. Avoiding hard mathematics with young students does not prepare them for hard mathematics when they are older.

There will always be people who believe that you do not understand mathematics if you cannot write a coherent essay about how you solved a problem, thus driving future STEM students away from mathematics at an early age. A fairness doctrine would require English language arts (ELA) students to write essays about the standard algorithms, thus also driving students away from ELA at an early age. The ability to communicate is NOT essential to understanding mathematics.

There will always be people who think that you must be able to solve problems in multiple ways. This is probably similar to thinking that it is important to teach creativity in mathematics in elementary school, as if such a thing were possible. Forget creativity; the truly rare student is the one who can solve straightforward problems in a straightforward way.

There will always be people who think that statistics and probability are more important than arithmetic and algebra, despite the fact that you can’t do statistics and probability without arithmetic and algebra and that you will never see a question about statistics or probability on a college placement exam, thus making statistics and probability irrelevant for college preparation.

There will always be people who think that teaching kids to “think like a mathematician,” whether they have met a mathematician or not, can be done independently of content. At present, it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core, which they sometimes think is the “real” mathematics, are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong. You learn Mathematical Practices just like the name implies; you practice mathematics with content.

There will always be people who think that teaching kids about geometric slides, flips, and turns is just as important as teaching them arithmetic. It isn’t. Ask any college math teacher.

What actually shocked me was two things. Firstly, the sheer nerve they show in calling their organisation “National Numeracy”. In ordinary English “numeracy” tends to refer precisely to the ability to do basic numerical calculations. In fact it is very often used so as to distinguish it from the more abstract understandings and creative methods associated with mathematics. What’s more, the “National Numeracy Strategy” was a government initiative in the late 90s which emphasised mental calculation and rejected the use of calculators. How on earth can they possibly justify calling their anti-numeracy campaign “National Numeracy”?

Further investigation of their website found a discussion of what numeracy is which concluded:

For our master-definition, we choose the international description of mathematical literacy:

“Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”. (PISA)

So to get their definition of numeracy they decided it meant “mathematical literacy” and then managed to look up a definition of “mathematical literacy” which completely fails to mention numeracy. The first part of the definition about having “to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world” is, to me, most reminiscent of the episode of the Simpsons “Girls Just Want to Have Sums”. In that episode Lisa is forced to attend a maths class especially aimed at empowering girls where they have to discuss how numbers make them feel rather than actually having to work anything out. This is also reflected in their full response to the draft primary curriculum, which repeatedly mentions the teaching of “attitudes”. With this dodgy definition of “numeracy”, it is no wonder National Numeracy actually campaigns to minimise the teaching of basic number skills. However, with the name “National Numeracy” they will continue to be reported in the media as if they were in favour, rather than against, numeracy.

The second thing that shocked me was a source of their funding. It was not surprising to see they were funded by some charities and a textbook publisher; dumbing-down often is. However, the first “funder” listed on their website was the building society Nationwide. Now it is very common for banks and building societies to be involved in backing organisations which support either numeracy or something like “financial literacy” and I don’t criticise them for doing so. But why, other than because they believed the name, should they fund an organisation which campaigns against the teaching of basic number skills? I’m not a member of Nationwide; it should be remembered it is a building society and is still owned by its members. If I was I’d be asking them why they backing this campaign. In particular I’d be asking:

  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that too much time is spent teaching children how to carry out calculations?
  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that there is a danger of an over-emphasis on “procedural tools” like times tables?
  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that it is a potential problem that the new national curriculum focuses on “early instrumental methods and rote processes” or that children “do sums in classrooms”?
  • Does Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that, rather than emphasising the ability to carry out calculations with numbers, numeracy should be about such things as “identify[ing] and understand[ing] the role that mathematics plays in the world … and engag[ing] with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”?
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  1. I think you are nitpicvking about NATE. This page from their website suggests they are perfectly OK about teaching grammar:

    • Nope. You have to be aware that there is an attempt to redefine “grammar” just as much as there is one to redefine “numeracy”.

      The chair of NATE, after being criticised by Michael Gove for opposing grammar teaching, denied opposing the teaching of grammar but admitted that:

      “If I have objections, it is to a decontextualised approach to the study of grammar that reduces the subject to knowing names of parts of speech and identifying these in random sentences.”

      This knowledge, what would normally be called “grammar”, is what they oppose. I think my description of them as opposing “the explicit teaching of grammar” is more than fair.

  2. Well, you are much closer to the chalkface than I am, but David Crystal’s book, endorsed on that page, does precisely what you would want, in developing knowledge of grammar. Also, I found this statement, which seems OK to me as a set of premises on which to base grammar teaching:
    The key innovative features of ‘grammar for writing’ in the English strategy (as in the NATE Grammar Books ) are these:
    Every point of grammar is linked as soon as it is taught to a writing activity which is designed to exploit it – very different from teaching grammar on Monday and hoping that it will affect writing on Friday.
    Grammar is taught systematically so that it is cumulative, rather than taught ‘as needed’.
    Grammar-teaching has the positive aim of language-expansion rather than the negative one of eliminating ‘errors’.
    That’s from
    In 15 years as a secondary English teacher, and ten working on PGCE programmes, I never met an English teacher who didn’t think that a knowledge of grammar was important.

    • …and the full context of the NATE response is here:
      where Debra Myhill’s Cybergrammar site is also endorsed, and that looks to me to be an exemplary approach to this field of knowledge:

      • Some of the books they sell, or things they link may well be fine. Doesn’t change the fact that their public pronouncements continually denigrate the explicit teaching of “the parts of speech”. As for no teachers opposing the teaching of grammar… well I haven’t encountered ones that would put it in those words. I have, however, encountered ones who had no concept of grammar beyond thinking it meant the stylistic conventions of particular types of writing and would argue there was no such thing as “correct” grammar.

        • Seriously, can you point me to some of these public pronouncements denigrating the explicit teaching of parts of speech, because all I see on the NATE and associated sites is material that absolutely suggests knowledge of parts of speech as imperative.

          • Didn’t I do that in my first reply to you?

            EDIT: Although if you want more, here’s a couple of further examples:



          • It seems to me that the argument is about what’s effective in the teaching of grammar. Gibbons says in his letter that “children should have access to strong teaching in the area of language, teaching that should develop a sophisticated and rigorous understanding of the grammar of English.” Those aren’t the words of someone who thinks it’s “oppressive to teach grammar.” What NATE advocates, it seems to me, is a much more sophisticated and useful approach to grammar, that goes well beyond the naming of parts, but – necessarily- includes the naming of parts as a starter, as the materials and approaches endorsed by NATE in their publications demonstrate. No one is saying that children shouldn’t be taught the parts of speech, but that a proper understanding of language goes well beyond that. Gove would presumably be happy with the bizarre chanting to the tune of John Peel happily remembered by the other correspondent in the Telegraph. I think we might have to agree to disagree on this.

          • ‘Bizarre chanting’, as you call it, is one of the most powerful aids to memorisation. My first Latin teacher (in Year 8) made us all sing 2nd declension neuter nouns to the theme from ‘The Pink Panther’. Thirty years later, it’s the bit of formal Latin that comes back to me most quickly.

            Altogether now, ‘bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello. Bella, bella, bella, bellorum, bellorum, bellis’.

            Thank you, Miss Farron, wherever you are…

  3. We need all students to leaving school to be numerate. We don’t need all students leaving school to be mathematicians. I would argue that being numerate is a pre-requisite for someone to be a good mathematician (or at least an efficient one). I don’t however think it is necessary to be a good mathematician in order to be numerate. In that very narrow sense there needs to be some separation between numeracy and mathematics.

    Whilst compete separation of the two domains is difficult (and in many ways undesirable) there is an argument that we would end up with more numerate children (in a computational sense) if we did so.

    There would be a value to a qualification that spoke to the level of numeracy that a student possessed (and arguably it should be a pass/fail assessment). I would suggest that many employers would be happier with an employee who passed numeracy and failed GCSE Maths than with one who achieved a Grade E Maths GCSE and failed numeracy.

    And of course, the real benefit is that it would keep employed an army of Maths consultants arguing about what should be included in a numeracy qualification. Perhaps the best thing that could happen is that mathematicians should not be involved in any definition of numeracy because we try to bring too much maths into it.

  4. Mike- you make a good point I think- I suspect many would concur.

    OA- I think you are correct about the muddling of the definitions of numeracy and grammar. As you know I’m pretty relaxed about explicit grammar teaching, instead I prefer lots of practice at simple sentences, in much the same way as kids used to learn times tables i suppose- so it becomes natural, efficient if you like.

    But its a scandal that we have huge sections of kids barely able to speak or write, add or subtract. innit?

    So I would go along with Gove on this, given the failures in the past- he can hardly do any worse than his predecessors on this particular measurement.

    • In the mid-nineties there was a survey published by (I think) the Basic Skills Agency. This looked at a range of basic numeracy skills (including fractions, percentages, addition, subtraction etc) and looked at what percentage of different age band were able to do the maths.

      What the results showed was that each age group had a very similar fail rate, indicating that any numeracy problem was not new, but had existed for many decades.

      This is not an argument that such failure is OK (although perhaps some consideration needs to be given to the idea some areas of numeracy are beyond some percentage of the population), but just to say it is nothing new, and that just returning to past methods and requirements will not solve the problem.

  5. Surely to goodness, 99% of the population have the intrinsic intellectual ability to calculate %’s?

    I find it disconcerting that we are issuing driving licenses to people unable to times or divide.

    • We issue them to people who can’t drive so not sure that their maths ability should stop them :-)

      Do we know that 99% of population have the intrinsic ability to calculate percentages? Some assume it is so. That assumption relies on the capabilities of the brain being (in some part) similar across the entire population. We know that the size of short-term memory is different for different people. This implies to me that other aspects of the brain may function slightly differently as well. This is particularly true with issues such as mathematics where the brain is not using elements of its structure for purposes they were expressly evolved for, rather it is lashing together different bits of capability to perform the required task. This is also true of reading.

      I would like to think that all have the same capabilities, given the same opportunities, but I think the brain is too complex to say for certain that this is the case.

      • I know…. but nonetheless cars are lethal weapons.

        And handing the keys of a lethal weapon to someone who cannot perform a division followed by a multiplication is … well… somewhat unnerving.

        Lets hope he/she has learnt where the brake peddle is at least.

        Would you be happy if your pilot was illiterate?

        Im being silly I know but such basic… tasks… are surely capable of most humans.

        I mean some 8yos can do fractions and percentages pretty well.

        Can I not expect an adult to work out the VAT on a packet of cigarettes?

        ps the recent hike made that sum much easier by the way!

  6. I shall be writing to Nationwide as I am a member. I think there should be an arithmetic GCSE and a maths one. I was horrified when I heard about the negative response to learning by rote. We have children in top set year 11 who do not know their times tables. Practice makes perfect but it also makes permanent.

  7. I know some fabulous mathematicians whose numeracy is limited at best. Beyond a certain level of maths the numeracy skills required are virtually non-existent and a couple of them probably haven’t done any arithmetic as part of their professional lives as mathematicians for quite some time. As with most things I imagine speed and accuracy of computation would deline if not practiced.

    I think several things are needed if school leavers are to become more numerate.

    1) There needs to be an exam that tests numeracy. The current GCSE can be failed by the numerate and passed by the in-numerate.
    2) It needs to become less socially acceptable to be useless at maths/numeracy. People rarely annouce to a room full of people that they are useless at reading but have no problems doing so where their maths is concerned. I had a veritable procession of parents at one parents evening all saying they were hopeless at maths
    3) People other than teachers needs to drive some sort of campaign to educate pupils and parents as to why being numerate is important

    Ultimately if a student leaves school without numeracy skills there is a high probability it is because they have chosen to do so. There are very fewpupils I have ever met that are not capaable of being numerate. Those pupils were profoundly special needs. The remaining pupils that leave innumerate are not interested in being numerate. This is what needs to be addressed. All of the changes in the world will be fairly pointless unless this one simple fact is addressed…
    I’m not holding my breath though waiting for that. It’s far easier to blame teachers…

    P.S. If, like some of my pupils, your life plan is to mooch off your parents contributing nothing of any value to society and making a little bit of money out of petty crime until your parents die leaving you their flat and then living there then why would you think numeracy essential?

    Sadly numeracy isn’t very “gangsta”… (and brap, brap brap probably).

    I’d have thought those in charge of SEAL and ECM would have addressed the “non-gangsta” nature of maths and numeracy by now so it caters more to my students feelings/needs etc…

    • I quite agree, high level/post graduate maths needs very little numerical skills.

      But professional mathematicians ARE numerate of course.

      I mean they may not be able to do 14×9 in their heads (nor can I) but they CAN add, subtract, times, divide, use decimals, use fractions, calculate %, use orders of magnitude, use a scientific calculator etc

      It seems to me that pushing for a separate GCSE in Numeracy is excessive.

      Why not simply make numeracy a key element of GCSE mathematics. Change the curriculum and exam content.

      If you cannot perform basic numerical tasks you cannot get above a D at GCSE maths. Simple as that.

      While we are at it, apply a similar rule to English GCSE with spelling and grammar.

    • If you are going to deal in drugs, basic numeracy, money, weights & measures are quite essential. So maths is definitely gangsta….

      • Forget Maths undergrads (for the moment). All of the following need computational numeracy: plumbers, gardeners, chefs, bus drivers, shop assistants, builders (etc.). Maths is a vocational skill, as well as being an academic one.

  8. I regret the fact that I cannot recall my times tables. As a child I was more interested in making up stories about dragons and spaceships and couldn’t keep my mind to it. My parents made me listen to tapes where the times tables were set to music, I repeated them parrot-fashion in class, but it just wouldn’t stick. My mind was elsewhere.

    As an adult, I now feel pretty foolish next to older adults who are capable of doing mental calculations much faster than I can, because my head requires a few seconds to figure out a simple multiplication, and I often can’t hold all the necessary calculations in my working memory at once.

  9. With regard to the point people have raised about the distinction between numeracy and the skills of a mathematician, I tend towards the view that it is often an unnecessary distinction simply because we are failing to teach either. While they are distinguishable, I would suggest that numeracy is still an absolutely key part of mathematical ability all the way up to A-level. The manipulations necessary for most of A-level depend on things like fluency with fractions, integers and surds which depend, in turn, on the basics.

  10. I’m innumerate. I don’t know any times table beyond the 4 times.

    Why? In the 60s my school switched to doing ‘New maths’ – fun stuff like measuring the playing field, battleships, making 3d shapes out of paper.

    I was 10 before anyone showed me long division.

    I am here to tell you ‘boring old maths’ works and the other doesn’t.

    (I was in secondary school before anyone explained any grammar to me…).

  11. Perhaps of interest? http://www.nate.org.uk/index.php?page=1&news=232

  12. It seems to me that the argument is about what’s effective in the teaching of grammar.

    Not really. Anyone refusing to teach something can make the claim that kids will learn it by osmosis or inquiry. Grammar’s not my area of expertise, but I doubt the claim is any more credible here than when it is made by phonics denialists or by advocates of “problem-solving” in maths.

    Regardless, I was very careful not to say NATE were against teaching grammar, I was more precise and stated they opposed “the explicit teaching of grammar”. Nothing I’ve seen in response seems to undermine this, most of it actually seems to confirm this.

    • I think you are splitting hairs here. Grammar is taught explicitly through the books and approaches I referred to. If you are using a book called The Primary Grammar Book, which “has three main sections containing a series of topics, eg. nouns, verbs, adjectives. Each topic includes a reminder of the grammar issue, teaching objectives and an outline of suggested activities” then I really don’t know what you’d call that other than the explicit teaching of grammar.

      • Some of the books they sell, or things they link may well be fine. Doesn’t change the fact that their public pronouncements continually denigrate the explicit teaching of “the parts of speech”.

        I may have mentioned this before.

        • I am as weary as you are over this issue. I think – and conversations with colleagues still at the chalkface confirm – that the objections are to the “naming of parts” as an end in itself. NATE, and every teacher of English I’ve ever encountered, want kids to know grammar, and to be confident in using it. Chanting definitions to the tune of John Peel doesn’t make for a sophisticated understanding of grammar. Careful development, based on explicit knowledge, is a much better approach.

          • I teach MFL. Children are not taught English grammar to any great extent. They know about adjectives and connectives – they know the definitions and can identify obvious examples in sentences. However they are clueless about verbs, adverbs etc and generaly write in a muddled way as they do not really understand the relationship between words in a sentence. I spend more time at GCSE sorting out their English than anything else.

          • OK, I give up. Grammar is embedded in the National Curriculum, and the parts of speech are supposedly learned in primary school. Secondary schemes of work are awash with grammar, and the English teachers’ organisation actively promotes the teaching of grammar. It sounds as if your English dept is simply not teaching what they are obliged to teach.

          • It isn’t just the English dept in my school. I don’t know any MFL teacher who would disagree with me. There is a limited amount of grammar contained in the National curriculum for English. Punctuation, higher order connectives, paragraphs and descriptive writing feature highly – not much else.

  13. One pleasant side-effect I have found of teaching children times tables is that they then know that they know something. Their confidence increases because they know they have learned something.

  14. “numeracy should be about such things as “identify[ing] and understand[ing] the role that mathematics plays in the world … and engag[ing] with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”

    I am about to take on the care of my ten month old grandson. I can’t tell you what a mission of pure joy it will be to me to ensure that he starts school, as my own children did, able to tell his times tables up to 10 x 5 and able to add and subtract two-digit numbers via the straightforward mechanical method I was taught by. No beatings were required, no damage to their creative souls or self-esteem took place.

  15. Re Grammar. In whatever job, at least reasonably responsible ones that students are likely to end up in, a good grasp of grammar is an asset. One junior engineering job I had involved written communication with suppliers; this involved writing to suppliers on headed notepaper. The company rules were strict about grammar and each letter was inspected by my line manager who made his displeasure very clear if there were any grammatical errors, including split infinitives and incorrect use of due to and owing to. All this in the days when you wrote out the letter in long hand, had it checked, and then sent on to the typist.
    The Civil Service used to publish a little book called “Plain English” which was reprinted by the O.U. I recommend it.

    • Prescriptive and soul-crushing! Are you a reactionary old fascist? Who is the Civil Service to tell our children how to write clear unambiguous English? You’re worse than Nazi – I bet you’re MIDDLE-CLASS!

      • Old – yes.
        Reactionary – I worked voluntarily for the Labour party in my youth.
        Fascist – I suppose I could get upset about this but I won’t. my family fought the fascists during the war.
        The Civil Service is not telling children how to write English. The booklet was published to remedy observed shortcomings with civil servants’ English.
        The Nazis who run the evil fascist Open University reprinted the booklet as an aid for OU students.
        MIDDLE CLASS – I suppose I am or rather was and what’s wrong with this? I recommend that you look up “paysan”
        I posted the comment in an effort to point out that written English is an important asset in the job search. Teachers are failing their pupils if they neglect to teach them grammar. Employers do not like employees using bad and/or sloppy English on their notepaper.
        I’m not sure why I bothered to respond to this nonsense.

        • I thought Emma P was writing tongue-in-cheek.

          • Yes, surely Emma was having a wee jest there?

          • Ah, sorry Emma, I’m clearly a bit over sensitive. I must hone my sense of humour.

  16. I think you’re missing a huge educational point here Andrew. Both groups are wrong. Neither the government\’s strategy of ’basic numeracy’ nor the National Numeracy group\’s aimless meanderings will work.

    Where you’ve hit the point is with your two subsequent posts, particularly the one about cheating at GCSE.

    The fact is that most primary teachers scraped a ’C’ grade at GCSE. Now, having been ’over-supported’ or ’manipulated’ or whatever-you-want-to-call-it through all their assessments from the age of 7, what is that ’C’ grade really worth?

    It is the quality of teaching and the teacher that needs to be improved to get that ’majority’ of GCSE students to tell you the product of 7 and 8. Arguing about what should be taught is like arguing over the type of bricks you need to build your house and then employing a fishmonger instead of a builder to do the job.

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